Interview with Jennifer Sleeman, Catalyst for Sept 26: “A Sunday Without Women”

Jennifer Sleeman, Cork, Ireland

Jennifer Sleeman’s call for Sept. 26 to be “A Sunday Without Women” on behalf of justice for women in the Catholic church, is picking up steam around the world. Sleeman, an 80-year-old Catholic convert from Clonakilty in Cork, Ireland, is an active member of her Catholic church. She is also the person mainly responsible for Clonakilty becoming the first Fair Trade town in Ireland and has received an award from the Cork Environmental Forum, in recognition of her “outstanding contribution to sustainability in Cork city and county through partnership and participation in the promotion of environmental care.”  I interviewed her last week over email.

Rose: What was the context for you suggesting the Mass-boycott day? What prompted you and why did the media pick it up?

Jennifer: Rose, I’m delighted to answer your questions. It is so exciting seeing the idea traveling world wide! I was aware that a lot of individuals and groups have been campaigning for equal rights in the Catholic Church and the idea of Boycott was to pull it all together. I was greatly encouraged and helped by friend who had a mailing list. It never crossed my mind that Sept.  26th is just after the Pope’s visit to England. I have been wondering a lot why I decided to risk it and why now — is there a spirit at work?

Rose: Other than the media, who has responded to your call?

Jennifer: I have had the most fantastic support from both women and men. Letters (proper ones on paper!), cards, emails, phone calls. 99.9% positive.

Rose: What are your plans for Sept. 26? Will you gather with others?

Jennifer: I don’t know what I will do on the 26th.

Rose: Is there any message you’d like to send to Catholic women around the world?

Jennifer: We are the majority. Together we have strength and our absence, the empty pews will be noticed. I would love the focus to go away from me and onto all women and men who see the great need for change in the Church. If people have ideas to gently reinforce the message, go for it.

The movement to “boycott Mass” for justice for women in the Catholic church may not be the perfect instrument. But in the language of social movements it would be considered a “weapon of the weak” — a nonviolent way that a subordinate class wields power over a a dominant power structure that purports absolute control (See James Scott and Karl Gaspar). Sleeman’s call is not only for justice for women but fits in a stream of actions and speeches that are geared to confronting the “restorationist” movement happening within the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

South African Catholic bishop Kevin Dowling described it this way:

“Restorationism: the carefully planned dismantling of the theology, ecclesiology, pastoral vision, indeed the ‘opening of the windows’ of Vatican II — in order to ‘restore’ a previous, or more controllable model of church through an increasingly centralized power structure; a structure which now controls everything in the life of the church through a network of Vatican congregations led by cardinals who ensure strict compliance with what is deemed by them to be ‘orthodox.’ Those who do not comply face censure and punishment, e.g. theologians who are forbidden to teach in Catholic faculties.

Lest we do not highlight sufficiently this important fact. Vatican II was an ecumenical council, i.e., a solemn exercise of the magisterium of the church, i.e. the college of bishops gathered together with the bishop of Rome and exercising a teaching function for the whole church. In other words, its vision, its principles and the direction it gave are to be followed and implemented by all, from the pope to the peasant farmer in the fields of Honduras.”

Read Bishop Dowling’s entire talk here. And let me know if you are taking action for women on Sept. 26. I’ll add you to the map.

Irish Woman Calls on Catholics to Boycott Mass on Sept. 26 For Greater Inclusion of Women

Jennifer Sleeman, an 80-year-old Catholic convert from Clonakilty in Cork, Ireland, is calling on Catholic women to “join your sisters on Sunday, September 26th. On that one day, boycott Mass. Stay at home and pray for change. We are the majority. We may have been protesting individually but unremarked on, but together we have strength and our absence, the empty pews, will be noticed.”

Men are also welcome to participate in the boycott, she said. “It’s not just about Mná na h-Éireann [Women of Ireland]. But it’s for them, because they are frustrated.” This invitation is now being spread to the faithful women of the Catholic church across the world.

(If you want to learn about the map of women boycotting on Sunday, Sept. 26, then go here.)

I love the fact that she uses the Gaelic phrase Mná na h-Éireann. It’s a phrase that carries great cultural weight referencing the critical role of women in the Irish liberation struggle.

Sleemen notes: “I am not a cradle Catholic. I chose to join as an adult [54 years ago] helped by meeting a wonderful priest … but I now wonder did I do the right thing? … Somehow I have grown up but the church has not.”

Here’s an excerpt from the news article:

“Whatever change you long for, recognition, ordination, the end of celibacy, which is another means of keeping women out, join with your sisters and let the hierarchy know by your absence that the days of an exclusively male-dominated church are over.”

Of the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, she said: “I find I belong to an organization that seems caught in a time warp, run by old celibate men divorced from the realities of life, with a lonely priesthood struggling with the burden of celibacy where rules and regulations have more weight than the original message of community and love.”

She said: “Some of the grandchildren go through the rites of sacraments, but seldom, if ever, visit a church afterwards. Some of my children are actively looking for a meaningful spiritual life, but they do not find it in the Catholic Church — I must except my eldest son who is a monk in Glenstal Abbey, another place that helps me keep some shreds of faith.”

You can read the whole article here. Or the article in the Irish Times here. There were two comments posted on the article that I particularly liked:

Well, hats off to Granny. It’s true women are treated as second class citizens. More women should support Jennifer & boycott Sunday Mass for a few weeks. Maybe it will wake up the Vatican to start doing the right thing instead of giving lip service. Come on Ladies show the church your not just a bunch of dumb sheep. The church seems to forget God created Women also. Ladies – hit them in the pocketbook. that’s where it will hurt!! Time to weed the chaff from the wheat.

Why not go back to the HEDGEROW MASS, when we had to endure anti-Catholicism by the Brits.

I think “hedgerow Masses” are a great idea! This is the equivalent of the house-church movement in the United States or the base community movement in Latin America and SE Asia. Are there priests who are willing to serve these communities? My guess is that there are.